By Kate Henley Averett
Research has shown that a preference for gender-normative behavior in children is linked to a belief that children are, by default, heterosexual. But do LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) parents share this belief? In this article, I address this question by looking at how, why, and in what contexts LGBTQ parents resist the heteronormative imperative that their children behave in gender-normative ways. Through in-depth interviews with 18 LGBTQ couples with young children, I find that these parents draw upon their own childhood experiences of having their gender and sexual identities (mis)recognized as they seek to provide their children some degree of freedom from strict, binary, gendered expectations. These parents use a strategy that I call “the gender buffet,” in which they provide their children with a variety of gendered options for clothing, toys, and activities so that their children can exercise some agency in how they express their gendered sense of self.
The parents I interviewed negotiate a complex, even contradictory, set of cultural discourses in seeking to be good parents to their children. On the one hand, the dominant heteronormative parenting discourse insists upon the importance of childhood gender conformity: thus, a “good parent” is one who raises their children in a way that conforms to these expectations. On the other hand, these parents see the construct of heteronormativity, with its assumption of binary gender, as something that can harm their children. They draw upon their own experiences of feeling that their expression of their gendered and sexual selves was constrained growing up in a heteronormative society, experiences from which they hope to shield their children.
The LGBTQ parents I interviewed all expressed a desire to raise their children in ways that challenge the dominant, heteronormative paradigm of childhood—though to varying degrees and with varying levels of consistency. I find among the parents I interviewed two approaches to the “gender buffet” strategy. All of the parents who employ this strategy seek to offer their children a variety of gendered options for clothing, toys, and activities and interests, including feminine, masculine, and gender-neutral choices. While some parents using this strategy present all options in a value-neutral way, while others take a more politicized, critical approach, labeling some characteristics of masculinity and femininity harmful or dangerous, and thus taking these options out of the buffet for their children. The existence of these two approaches raises questions about the resistance potential of the gender buffet strategy. On the one hand, the strategy may align with a model of gender “equality” that is focused on individual choice but which lacks a critique of power relations. On the other hand, as we see with the parents who take a more critical approach to the gender buffet, this strategy can also include an intentional, politicized challenge to gendered power relations, evident in the goals some parents had of raising sensitive, non-violent, feminist sons and capable, independent daughters. What impact the use of this strategy may have on gender more broadly, then, may depend on which approach to the strategy dominates.
Additionally, I find that the social location of both the parents and their children matter to how free or constrained these parents feel in resisting gender normativity with their children. Factors such as race, class, gender (of both parents and children), local context, and legal protection of the family all intersect in ways that both enable and constrain these parents’ ability—or even desire—to engage in these practices. All parents in my sample reported being inconsistent with their resistance, even at times going against their own convictions. They reported, to varying degrees, feeling observed, scrutinized, or held accountable for their children’s gendered behavior by real or hypothetical others. For scholars and activists who seek to diminish binary, heteronormative gender norms for children, this finding that parents’ ability to resist heteronormative gender norms for their children is constrained by their social location should be of utmost importance, as it points to one of the areas in which overlapping systems of social inequality produce variation in the experiences of LGBTQ parents. In short, my research makes clear that gender socialization is an interactional process that is influenced by the material realities of both the child and the parents.
Kate Henley Averett is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She researches gender and sexuality in childhood and the family. Her dissertation is on discourses of childhood gender and sexuality in the homeschooling movement. Her article can be found in the April 30 (2) issue of Gender & Society here.